Geller Law Group: Bringing Big Law Thinking to a Small Firm World

By Jeffery Leon

April 6, 2017

Rebecca Geller is the president and CEO of The Geller Law Group, a firm she founded in 2011 with the goal of providing high-quality legal services while at the same time emphasizing a healthy work–life balance for the firm’s staff. Bringing attention to the fact that attorneys have families and lives outside of the office, The Geller Law Group has been profiled by The New York Times for its innovative approach to maintaining balance. The D.C. Bar recently spoke with Geller about the history of the firm, the benefits of a flexible work environment, and more.

Tell us about your background.Rebecca Geller, The Geller Law Group

I began my career at a big firm in D.C. and left there in 2011 to start my own firm. My children were two and a half and eight months old. Now I have three kids who are two and a half, five and a half, and seven and a half—that one-half is very important for them!

I wanted to create a firm that was different from the traditional model of law firms because, truthfully, that's what I needed. It turned out that was what a lot of women, needed too. I didn’t think that my idea was revolutionary in thought, but it turned out quite revolutionary in practice. I believed it was time to stop making women fit into work environments that were originally designed for men. Instead, I created a business model that made sense to working parents by allowing flexible schedules and telework.

Our firm has eight lawyers [and] over 1,800 clients, and we are growing faster than we could have ever imagined.

What types of matters does your firm handle?

The Geller Law Group does wills, trusts, and estate planning; family law; and business litigation. We serve as general counsel for small businesses.

How did the firm get off the ground? 

It's frightening to start off your own law firm, especially when you have young children. Having come from a big law background, it was different. I knew a lot of people and had an extensive network. I was feeling burned out practicing law so I started doing more business consulting. Some of my clients asked, “Hey, aren't you also a lawyer? Can you help us with some of our issues?” So I began doing more legal work. 

I was doing half consulting and half legal duties. Within six months it became very clear that there was a demand for a small law firm that could work with small businesses and families and listen to their needs in ways that many small firms don't. I applied a lot of what I learned from the big firm model about being responsive to client needs and delivering excellent legal work to a small firm model and it snowballed. In the last three years we've averaged five to eight new clients per week coming from social media and referrals. 

I created the firm with a set of values, believing in building work life around family life. We have 12 employees, and among these employees, 18 children. The average age is three and a half. It was important to integrate the commitment to our families and to our law firm to ensure balance in our everyday lives. Finding that balance is something most lawyers never find in their career. That’s our goal, but at the same time making sure that our clients know that their needs are being met, too. 

What are the benefits of adopting that type of thinking into your practice? 

The traditional places people get business clients [are] usually on the golf course [and] over steak dinners. That's not how we operate. Because of the flexibility of my schedule, I sometimes take my kids to weekday activities, and I keep business cards in my diaper bag. I'm just as likely, if not more likely in fact, to be asked for my business card on the playground than I would be at a bar networking event. I have literally gotten clients from a Chuck E. Cheese’s birthday party! 

For us, it's finding a different way to bring in business while also attracting some of the top legal talent. There are smart, capable employees who have a lot to offer, but also want to have flexibility and the ability to work from home. We don't go to the office unless we have an in-person client meeting or are preparing for court. If you meet the client's deadlines, I don’t mind that somebody is going to their child's Valentine’s Day party at lunchtime and working a little later in the evenings. 

When I started, a lot of my friends from more traditional law firms questioned my approach to work–life balance. I believe that the key to changing an industry is to ask why. Why not try something new? We’ve proven that we can be successful. 

What do you consider as your successes so far? 

I treasure the fact that our firm has grown to over 1,800 clients in five years. We have eight attorneys and a law clerk who will be joining us this fall, and I'm hiring again! 

One of our challenges is keeping up with demand as we grow our practice. Sometimes it means we leave money on the table because I am not willing to take on new clients if it means my employees must work 70-plus-hour weeks. That's a value you actively decide every day by running the practice in a thoughtful, deliberate manner. 

Additionally, although we are relatively new and small, we offer paid maternity leave, which is unusual for small firms. This past fall was our "Fall of Babies,” as three of our attorneys gave birth within three weeks of each other. During that time, another attorney's father-in-law passed, and I was in a major car accident, which left me with a concussion. All of this was unplanned, but it was a uniquely suitable test to our founding concepts. We worked together to make sure our clients have the same strong service and make sure people have time with their families, especially the new moms. We helped each other through that challenging time, and our firm is now stronger than ever. 

What do you look forward to in 2017? 

Our family law practice is exploding. We recently hired another senior family law attorney who handles guardian ad litem cases. We're starting to look toward doing more work with nonprofits. We acquired a firm last year that focuses exclusively on nonprofits. We aim to expand [by combining] estate planning with nonprofits for donors. We want to expand our estate planning and business clients in Maryland. 

We are also becoming more strategic in our pro bono practices. One of our associates won a child asylum case this fall, and we just started another child asylum case. We recently organized and hosted a training for 150-plus lawyers in the D.C. area to help them learn how to take on pro bono cases to help children seeking asylum, or special juvenile immigration status cases through the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense. We’ve also taken on domestic violence cases through nonprofits. 

One of our founding principles is to give back to our community, and in May, we will spend a day volunteering at a soup kitchen in D.C. We’re humbled by our successes and want to give back. 

What are some of the challenges of running the firm? 

One of the hardest parts about running a business, especially a new business, is that you don't know what you don't know. I talk about that a lot with our small business clients because I come from it very personally. Every business owner makes mistakes, and it’s important to learn from them. 

It is also challenging figuring out how to put systems in place for things like billing, logistics, marketing, employment, etc. The first time you go through hiring and firing, you learn a lot about running a business. 

Additionally, it is hard figuring out the correct speed by which we can and should grow. We have a lot of opportunities that are presented to us, and we refer out a lot of other cases because they aren't the right opportunities. Since the beginning of 2017, we have averaged about 10 new clients per week, so right now it's clear we need to be hiring. It's a challenge, but also a blessing.